Every year — once, and all over again — Burning Man re-teaches me how not to be cynical.
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It’s easy to hate Burning Man. The dust is poisonous, the trip is a giant expensive hassle, and we Burners can be remarkably irritating (especially when evangelical). There are class issues, and other issues too.
I considered giving you a “How To Write About Burning Man” article, which would explain how to get people to click on your website using headlines like:
• “How Does Burning Man Reflect [Insert Inflammatory San Francisco Stereotype]?”
• “Are Burners [Stereotype A] or [Stereotype B]?”
• “Are Burners Techies or Survivalists?”
• “Are Burners Libertarians or Communists?”
• “Are Burners Visionary Artists or Useless, Dissolute Addicts?”
• “Burning Man: Inside The Desert Debauchery That Is A Clear Sign of America’s Moral Downfall”
These questions are crucial to our time. They must be important, because every time I log into Facebook, I cannot escape similar articles posted by 300 of my friends — and that’s how you know a topic is important, right?
But after attending the Burn this year for my fourth time, I realized that all I want to do is tell you about my favorite art piece.
I found it in the middle of the night on Saturday. My companion and I were wandering across the desert on foot. We had seen many wonders:
• We were coming from three exquisite, delicate, light-filled geometric sculptures that threw filigree shadows across the sand.
• Before that, we visited a vast and extraordinary steel pigeon skeleton that held a riding seat and bicycle pedals in its ribcage. People could sit in the seat and control the metallic wings.
• Later that night, we would discover a wooden outpost from “two years in the future” — a fanciful monument to the apocalypse, built and then abandoned by desperate survivors in 2016.
But none of these things, in the end, were my favorite piece of art.
Click here to see this picture full-screen
We were not tired, but we were hungry, and we didn’t want to make the half-hour journey back to camp just to eat. Fortunately, we had prepared for our art trek by packing several meals; now we hoped to find a place to sit down.
Ahead of us, we spotted a tiny white building whose wall sported the words: “Come inside!” (I later discovered that it’s called “Dreambox 3.0,” by Teddy Saunders.) Within, we discovered a narrow entranceway with black walls, painted with star patterns and neon quotations about dreams. It was what you’d expect: bits of poems that many Americans read in grade school, like Langston Hughes’ “Hold fast to dreams, for if dreams die, life is a broken-winged bird that cannot fly.”
We squeezed through to the next space: a fluorescent-lit room, just big enough for a stool, with white walls covered in Sharpie writing. I put my backpack down on the stool and investigated the field of Sharpie, finding stuff like “I dream of love for everyone!” — the sort of thing people get sarcastic about when discussing Burning Man.
There was also a computer screen in front of the stool. Visitors could use it to read an extensive Terms and Conditions and then record yourself speaking about your life’s dream. My friend and I poked at it for a while. The screen had suffered during its week of toxic dust, and we made typical techie jokes about user interface design. Then we settled in to eat quick snacks.
A few people came by. One bore a ready-to-use Sharpie, for which we applauded her. Most visitors glanced around, shrugged, and left. In the lulls, my friend and I began to imagine a sculpture to celebrate challenging user interfaces, and we were laughing when a new couple joined us. The man was built like a fireplug, covered in tattoos; his fireman’s helmet was real, not a costume. The woman was blonde, makeup-free, wearing relatively “real world” clothes and an unfashionable paper surgical mask to filter the dust. I asked where they were from, and they said they’d driven in from Baltimore.
They looked around quietly. I smiled, and I said that the computer was a bit hard to use. I expected a laugh, but they didn’t laugh. After a moment, the man asked politely, “Are you going to try it?”
I shook my head. “Well, may I sit down, then?” he said.
With alacrity, I scrunched myself into a corner with my backpack, stifling my giggles as he doggedly navigated the checkboxes for the Dreambox’s Terms and Conditions. Finally he made it to a screen that offered him 30 seconds to describe his dream, and posed clarifying questions. I’ll have to tell you what he said from memory, because I didn’t have the presence of mind to write it down.
With care, the man squarely faced the screen, and he said something like this:
“I dream of finding a small community and making a home there, where people love each other. And what making a home looks like to me is, I want to be a role model and a leader, and I want to build a safe space for…”
Here, he hesitated for a moment.
“… Dream-making,” he concluded.
He took the hand of his companion, and she sat down beside him. Here’s what I remember: “I want to find my purpose in life, and I want to enjoy it. I want to live somewhere nice with people I love.” She added shyly, “Maybe I’ll get to travel the world… that sounds like fun.”
Then they left.
Their sincerity had taken my breath away.
I called after them: “Thank you guys so much for being here! You’re awesome!” and found myself afraid that my tone came across as ironic. I felt terribly self-conscious of the cynicism that had blinded me to the potential of this piece.
I looked across at my companion. “I’m almost crying,” I said, and he nodded. I looked at the screen and wondered if I will ever make anything that could encourage someone to so clearly, authentically, and bravely imagine their life’s dream.
And then: Upon my return, I found out that the DreamBox is a promotional project for a startup that is currently trying to raise funding in the real world. So is this:
• A sad example of cynical advertising at an event that is explicitly Not About Branding?
• Or a lovely example of artists finding new ways to support their art?
Maybe it’s best viewed as a clever social comment. But I still think it’s beautiful.